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Crows and Design Strategy – Cracking the Nut


What do crows have to do with design strategy? One could easily argue that crows are rarely cast in a positive light. Think of the phrases associated with the ebony fowl: You old crow; Cackling like a bunch of crows; Eat crow; and for us women, the dreaded Crow’s feet. I mean really – we call a flock of them a murder of crows. These guys have a serious PR problem, so why the metaphor?

I live in the country and work from my home office, so much of my thinking is influenced by the outdoors. As I walked my dogs early Halloween morning, I was once again struck by the annual highway located 50 feet above my head. Our property lies about a half-mile (quite literally as the crow flies) from a walnut orchard. Each autumn, the crows mount an industrious effort to harvest said orchard.

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that the tufty endeavor is in fact a highly organized and strategic operation. Beginning at dawn, a squadron of the first airborne descends on the farm. Each pilot grabs a ripe walnut that has dropped to the ground, then begins the long flight to base station. They fly in two lanes on two separate highways. The outbound crows carry their full payload, while the inbound crows have already stored their assets at base station. Free of walnuts, the inbounders cackle encouragement at the burdened outbounders.

Squadron leaders intermittently accompany the outbound crows. They do not carry nuts, but instead coach the neophytes along their flight path. I like to imagine that they are offering suggestions for course adjustment and flight refinement. By late morning, work has ceased save for a few crows on maintenance duty.

Beyond their remarkable coordination, the crows have developed an ingenious method of cracking their walnuts. When we first moved to the sticks, I pitied the crows that accidentally dropped their walnuts on the pavement as I drove down lonely country roads. After another neighbor complained about the walnut shells and crow feces on his tennis court, it occurred to me that none of this was accidental. The crows deliberately drop the walnuts on hard surfaces to crack them. If they don’t break the first time, they shovel them back into their beaks, fly a little higher, and drop their bombs again. It certainly saves some serious headaches from incessantly pounding your beak against the near impervious shells.


Despite their bad rap, we can learn a lot from our feathered friends with respect to good design practice. There’s no question that they have studied the problem of how to efficiently transport their winter food source from Point A to Point B. They’ve developed effective processes for their airborne armada. Each soldier knows his role and the mission of the team. Practical feedback and encouragement is given by team leaders. And finally, through what was likely an iterative process, they arrived at a creative solution for cracking the nut.

As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once said, Method is more important than strength, when you wish to control your enemies. By dropping golden beads near a snake, a crow once managed to have a passer-by kill the snake for the beads.

While we are not the largest digital design studio in California, like the crows, we do employ proven methods such as discovery and research, iterative processes, creative solutions and innovative approaches through re-imagining experiences to help our clients shrewdly rise above their competition and cleverly crack the nut.

What about you? Had an natural epiphanies lately?

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